“You want to know what it’s like to be on a plane for 22 hours? Sit in a chair, squeeze your head as hard as you can, don’t stop, then take a paper bag and put it over your mouth and nose and breath your own air over and over and over.”
Anthrax & Business Travel
The next incredible, or maybe bizarre, experience happened on my next trip back to New York City just shortly after that fateful 9/11 trip. This trip was to finish the meetings that had been canceled during the week of 9/11. It was October 12, 2001, just a month after the 9/11 attacks. Tensions in New York City were very high, new security procedures were in place at all the major buildings in Manhattan, of course, the airports were now like military zones. Everything and everyone in the city was still on edge at that time.
One of the meetings scheduled that day was with Saul Hansel, who at that time was an excellent and very influential technology reporter for the New York Times. The meeting was held in a windowless building in the iconic old New York Times building on West 43rd Street. Just as we were sitting down to talk, a loud alarm started blaring in the building. Saul didn’t seem too concerned, so we just continued on with the meeting. The alarm did not stop, and it was getting harder and harder to ignore. After several minutes of this alarm sounding off, Saul was getting a little annoyed and decided to go find out what was happening. Just moments after he left the room, a loud voice came over an intercom system telling everyone in the building not to move, the man on the intercom said. “stay exactly where you are and wait for further instructions.” After what seemed like forever, but was really only a few minutes, Saul returned to the room to give us an update what was going on. He informed us that there was a possible bioterrorist attack underway and he had been told to go back to the room and wait for further instructions. Just a couple minutes later another loud voice came over the intercom system and blared, “anybody who is not of the 3rd floor of the building evacuate immediately! If you are on the 3rd floor stay where you are and wait for further instructions.” This time, it was bad luck! Of all the floors in that building, somehow luck had it that I was on the 3rd floor!
The 3rd floor happened to be where Judith Miller’s desk was, a reporter who had co-wrote a recent best seller on bioterrorism, “Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War” she had opened a threatening letter containing a powder-like substance that appeared to be like talcum powder, when she opened the letter the powder came flying out of the envelope, which led to a scare that the envelope could have been one of a series of attacks that had been unfolding throughout that week.
Those attacks became known as Amerithrax from its Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) case name, and it occurred over the course of several weeks beginning on Tuesday, September 18, 2001, just one week after the September 11 attacks. Letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to several news media offices and two Democratic U.S. Senators, killing five people and infecting 17 others. According to the FBI, the ensuing investigation became “one of the largest and most complex in the history of law enforcement”.
The next set of instructions blared over the intercom, everyone who was remaining on the 3rd floor needed to slowly walk down the stairs to the lobby area of the building. We picked up our stuff, headed out of the room and started walking down the stairs. In the old New York Time’s building, there is a large grand staircase that enters into the bottom floor of a large lobby area. As we approached the lobby coming down from the stairs we were shocked to see that the doors of the building had been chained shut from the outside, emergency personnel were suiting up into hazmat suits. We were trapped in the lobby – like of group of people who had just been exposed to an unknown contagion!
We were told to remain calm and stay in the lobby area. We could see outside the front of the building, all traffic had been shut off to the area, there were only police, fire and hazmat vehicles out front. At this point, everyone who had been locked into that building was feeling very rattled. We were all thinking the worst, had we been exposed to Anthrax? or maybe something worse? Nobody knew, the Health Department gathered samples from the desk of the reporter, and they would be flown immediately to a lab someplace in Virginia for testing. Oddly, there was no place in NYC who had the capability to effectively test for Anthrax. Panic in the lobby area kept going up, we were informed by one of the reporters who was locked in the building with us that a woman in the NBC offices just a few blocks away, who was Tom Brokaw’s assistant, had tested positive for Anthrax. There was a very real possibility that this entire group had just been exposed to Anthrax, a lethal substance that can kill people with a horribly painful death.
I called back home to Seattle to my wife to explain what was happening. It was a hard call to make. I tried to be as unemotional as possible. I told her about the events that had happened up to that point, and that I didn’t know what was going to happen next, but to stay near the phone. I told her I loved her and I would call back as soon as I knew more. I can only imagine how unsettling that call must have been for her.
After a couple of hours of waiting, and tensions getting higher and higher, with the people in the lobby including a host of New York Times reporters all locked in and now demanding that they be allowed to leave the building. The Health Department finally hatched a plan to deal with the escalating situation. They took down specific information of everyone who was in the building and was on that 3rd floor, where exactly they were on the floor at the time and numbers where they would be able to contact you as soon as they got back the definitive results from the tests of that spilled substance. My group happened to be just around the corner where the envelope was spilled out, which did not provide me with any additional comfort.
Adding to the stress and confusion of the situation for me and my travel companion. We had plane tickets scheduled to fly us home that evening. We didn’t know if we should go ahead and take the plane back to Seattle, not knowing if we had been exposed to Anthrax or something else. Would it be safer to stay in New York City, in the event that if we had been exposed to something we could seek more immediate medical care? Nobody from the health department could give us a straight answer to that question.
Anthrax itself is a tricky substance. It takes about 10,000 spores of Anthrax to make you sick. It is worse if inhaled and it can kill you in about 2-3 days. It can also contaminate you by contact on your skin, that takes longer, up to 6 weeks to kill you. It produces toxins in your system, and the symptoms are cold or fever like symptoms. It is easily treated with Antibiotics like Cipro. However, once you show signs of symptoms, it is already too late to treat it and there is nothing that can be done, you will die. So timing is of the essence if you are exposed to Anthrax, you want to seek treatment immediately.
It is not totally clear exactly how much time you have, but the health department official seemed confident that as long as I was back on the ground in Seattle within the next 12 hours, I would be fine to start treatment then if needed. They would contact me via my cell phone and home phone as soon as they had results. If the powder tested positive for Anthrax, I would need to contact the local health department and have them approve a prescription for the Cipro immediately when I arrived in Seattle.
At the time of the Anthrax scare, all Cipro had been locked down by the health department and was being stockpiled for the possibility of a weaponized Anthrax attack. There were all kinds of fears that a dirty bomb filled with Anthrax somehow could be set off in a crowded populated area as some kind of follow up a terrorist attack from 9/11.
With that information I called my wife back at home, and asked her to get going on tracking down who at our local health department could prescribe Cipro upon my return if needed. This turned into a nightmare for her. She called the health department, and they treated her like a crazy lady, they knew nothing of the New York Times building incident and basically treated her like she was an insane person.
She called officials at Microsoft to try and get help, which they did try and help. It was overall a big mess. They kept telling her that nobody in Seattle had any exposure to Anthrax reported and there was nothing they could do for her. It was crazy, there is no system in place to deal with things like this, I highly doubt there is any such system now. In hindsight, I probably should have stayed in NY to wait and see what the results were and then get treatment there. But when you fear you might risk dying, all you want to do home to see your family as soon as you can. It was one HELL of a long flight back to Seattle, wondering, worrying, had I been exposed to this stuff, or something else, every hour that went by on that flight seemed like an eternity.
Finally, when we landed and my cell phone messages started buzzing in. I called my voicemail, as you did back in those pre-smartphone days, and there was a message from the NY Department of Health, the powder had tested negative. It was talcum powder, it was a hoax! A terrible hoax and scare for me and my family. Business travel is hard enough, getting stuck in DC on 9/11 and caught up in the Amerithrax scare 2 weeks later in New York was starting to kill my love of the road. The joke around the office was don’t travel with Bob! He’s bad luck, you’ll be risking your life.. I had to agree, my record was looking spotty!
Back on the Road this time with Bill Gates!
The third big adventure on the road was on October 24th, 2002, I was now the head of PR for MSN, and on that day we were launching our latest competitive threat to AOL called MSN8. It had all kinds of new features, better personalization, improved email experience, parental controls, and other good features we were proud of. It was the first time that we really had something that was as good as or better than what AOL had been offering.
We had planned a big elaborate launch event in New York City. The event was at the height of our spending, we erected a huge bubble in the middle of Central Park – imaging a bubble like you see that cover swimming pools in the winter, only 10 times the size. Inside the bubble, we would host over 300 press people, partners, industry dignitaries and the like. Michael Eisner, the chairman and CEO of Disney would make a special announcement with Bill Gates where the companies would partner to deliver special Disney content via the newly minted MSN 8 product. To celebrate the launch Lenny Kravitz would play for the press, and Bill was the host and keynote speaker. It was a big event for the company and a big deal for me personally.
I was assigned to accompany Bill Gates for the day’s press meetings. In the morning we had a long list of press engagements. I was nervous and excited to have a chance to spend a day with Bill. It was for sure going to be a unique opportunity. We were all staying at the W hotel. Bill had come in the night before on his private plane. The rest of us all flew in the day prior, economy class of course! I got up early that morning, I was told to meet Bill in the lobby of the hotel. Bill, his driver, and a small security and PR entourage showed up right on time. Bill seemed to be a little groggy but ready to go. We walked out to the busy New York street, where there were two cars waiting for us. I never knew this prior, but Bill’s security and medical people followed in a car behind Bill wherever he went. The other care would contain a driver, another security person, Bill’s full-time PR person, and myself! to ride in the SUV that would lead the two-car caravan.
Making Bill Gates Ride hump!
So here I am with the richest man in the world and a business and technology icon, trying to sort of act like this was not a big deal. Once we all gathered on the street next to the cars everybody started loading in the cars, it was all very routine to them where they would ride, they had done this hundred of times together. In Bill’s car, which was a big SUV, the driver and security person both jumped into the two front seats. Bill’s PR person, and Bill jumped into the back seat. I was sort of standing there waiting awkwardly to see where I should sit. Bill Gates deadpanned me and says “get in” and scoots over to the middle and I get in and shut the door. I immediately think to myself, “oh shit” I just made Bill Gates ride hump! Not a great start with the CEO I thought to myself…
Luckily, I had some fantastic news to deliver to Bill that morning. Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal, and the most important technical press reviewer of all time, and probably the most important tech journalist ever, had published his competitive review of MSN8 vs. AOL8 that morning, and MSN had won big! It was a huge win, and as the head of PR for MSN I could not have been happier to hand that newspaper to Bill. I asked him, “have you seen the Walt review yet?” He said “no”. I smiled and handed it to him. I said, “I think you are going to like this one”. As we raced through Manhattan to our first meeting, Bill quietly sat and read the review. The review headline read. “New MSN Online Service Outshines Its Rival AOL” He read the article in about 3 minutes time, he put it down, and said, “that is the best review we have ever had from Walt”. Bill was in a great mood for the rest of the day.
It was fortunate that Bill was now in a good mood because the rest of the day turned out to be much more challenging. Our first scheduled PR meeting was booked with the ABC morning show hosted by Charles Gibson. Unfortunately for us, there was a huge news story breaking that day. Earlier that same morning authorities had finally apprehended the infamous Beltway Snipers.
The Beltway sniper attacks were a series of coordinated shootings that took place over three weeks in October 2002 in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Ten people were killed and three other victims were critically injured in several locations throughout the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area and along Interstate 95 in Virginia. The rampage was perpetrated by John Allen Muhammad (then aged 42) and Lee Boyd Malvo (then 17), driving a blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice sedan. Their crime spree began in February 2002 with murders and robberies in the states of Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, and Washington, which resulted in seven deaths and seven injuries, bringing the total victim count to 17 deaths and 10 injuries. It was a huge news story, and every news outlet was covering it 24/7. It gripped the nation in fear.
The Bill Gates entourage was now sitting in the green room waiting to go on the ABC Good Morning Show. We sat watching the TV’s in the room as details of the capture were unfolding. Soon Bill’s scheduled time to go on had slipped by. Bill waited patiently, and his time slipped again. Finally, Charlie Gibson came into the green room and graciously said to Bill, “I can’t believe I am doing this, but I have to bump the richest man in the world”. Bill and all of us were obviously disappointed, as Bill had come a long way and taken a lot of time to come out and do these meetings, and he had a lot of positive news about Microsoft to share that day. That said, Bill was also very gracious to Charlie and made some good small talk with him, as we left the studio we walked through the set with Charlie on the way out, and Charlie promised he would someway make it up to Bill a later date. It was incredible experience for me to see all of this take place. Subsequently, the entire rest of the day’s of PR meetings were canceled, all coverage from the big networks was moved to 100% focus on the Sniper shootings. So we headed off to Central Park, where Bill could get some privacy backstage before leading the big launch event, and the rest of the team could prepare for the evening’s festivities.
Bill ended up doing a fantastic job at the launch event, and the positive reviews set up the evening and the ensuing news coverage for a big momentum shift in favor of MSN. It was an incredible day for me, one I will never forget. The day also reinforced for me that the world is a very unpredictable place. You can have plans laid out for months, and have done everything possible to make things go smoothly, and at any moment a new event can enter into the fray and change everything in a literal New York minute. I also learned that year that traveling on business is difficult and exhausting, sometimes you can get too much of it, and that is a mistake.
Learning Lesson # 12 – Avoid jobs with too much business travel – business travel starts out as a fun and provides incredible experiences, but it also can become a terrible grind over time. When you are early in your career, embrace all the travel opportunities you possibly can, seeing the world and visiting customers directly is a very valuable experience. But be very careful not to commit to a lifetime of being a road warrior. The first time you visit great cities like London, Paris, New York or whatever fabulous city you travel to for business, it is very exciting. Meeting customers and partners directly face to face are invaluable for your career and building up your network. Take whatever free time you have when doing business travel and play tourist visiting all the awesome places in whatever city you happen to be in. It really is a fantastic experience.
Unfortunately, after you have been to these cities 15-20-30 or more times, you have pretty much seen all of the top tourist destinations. If you are lucky enough that your company will pay first class or fly you privately, most of this does not apply. But believe me when I tell you, your enthusiasm for flying 10-18 hours on an international trip and then being expected to work hard for 3 to 5 days will wear down your body, mind, and soul. You will start to really miss your family and friends, your house, your own bed, and your dog! Try to avoid any job that claims over 50% travel. Those jobs are for suckers, and people who travel that much rarely move up the ranks very far. Oddly I found that people who travel more than 50% of the time are often resented by their managers, co-workers, and employees. The people who work at HQ’s are tribal, almost pack like animals. If you are gone and away from HQ you will start to lose your connections with people, and they will start to think you are traveling just to get away from the office. Don’t be fooled into thinking you will be a hero for all those hours spent on the road. The more likely outcome is you will move up the ladder slower, and you will alienate the people who are the most important to you.